"I'm happy when it rains," says the artist Bo Yun, as a spring shower falls steadily on the fresh young lotus shoots and willow trees bordering the West Lake in Hangzhou. "It reminds me of my childhood. I lived in my grandmother's house in the countryside in Shanxi province, northern China, for much of the time. I would take a little stool and sit in the doorway to watch the rain falling. I felt very safe there. An hour or so later, the skies would clear and the sun shone brilliantly on the vivid green rice fields."
We are sheltering in a small pagoda, one of the many beauty spots linked with poets and patriots and rich in literary associations that surround the most famous lake in China. It is an area of peaceful gardens, ethereal distant hills, temples, pagodas and teahouses. Bo Yun says the Chinese have an old saying, "In heaven there is paradise, on earth Hangzhou." Chinese artists have traditionally made pilgrimages here and Bo Yun, a Beijing-based painter of abstract landscapes, is no exception.
Hangzhou is an historical city. In the 12th century, after the invasion of the Mongols, it became the capital of the Southern Song dynasty and the court, military, civil officials and merchants all congregated here. In the 13th century, Marco Polo visited Hangzhou and described it as "without doubt, one of the finest and most splendid cities in the world." The largest island in the West Lake, Gushan (Solitary Hill) Island, was once the haunt of classical Chinese scholars, poet-magistrates and 18th century Qing dynasty emperors who chose it as their summer retreat.
In the 20th century, Hangzhou's reputation as a major artistic centre was reinforced. In 1928, the National Academy of Art, the first comprehensive art academy in China, was founded on the east bank of the West Lake by Cai Yuanpei, a renowned Chinese educator. The distinguished artist Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) was its first President. Since its foundation, the name of the prestigious academy, the alma mater of many leading figures in 20th century Chinese art including Huang Binhong (1865-1955), Pan Tianshou (1897-1971), Wu Dayu (1903-1988), Li Keran (1907-1989), Zhu Dequn (b. 1920), Wu Guanzhong (b. 1919) and Zao Wuqi (b.1921) has changed several times. The present China National Academy of Art in Hangzhou and the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing are the two leading art academies in China.
Strolling along the broad, tree-lined Sudi Causeway which crosses the West Lake from north to south, Bo Yun reminisces about his first visit to Hangzhou in the early days of the Cultural Revolution: "I remember it was in 1967. I was a Red Guard, an idealistic young revolutionary! My fellow students and I really believed that we could change the world. There would be rice in every bowl and an end to poverty for the working classes. Chairman Mao had decreed that all Red Guards should be given free travel passes, so for two years we travelled free of charge all over China. It was not always easy: we slept under the seats of railway carriages in winter, and outside on the bare dried earth of school yards in summer time."
Hangzhou was very different in those days. I remember the traditional houses with their tiled roofs, the scores of bicycles on dusty roads. Of course, as art students we were excited to visit such an important cultural centre, but we were also caught up in revolutionary fervour. Every morning, carrying our little red books, we saluted Chairman Mao and sang patriotic anthems. The commonly held image of the Red Guards is violent and destructive, but we were not like that. How could we suddenly criticize our teachers for whom we had such reverence? Our aim was to change society. Only much later did we realize that Mao's regime was a lie, that the Cultural Revolution could never achieve the utopia we envisaged."
Returning to the northwest shore of the West Lake, we visit the homes of two of Hangzhou's most famous artists, Lin Fengmian and Huang Binhong, now preserved as museums. In the true tradition of Chinese art, Bo Yun speaks of both these masters with the utmost respect. "I think Lin Fengmian was a great artist. He was the first Chinese artist to travel to France in the 1920s and to make an effort to reinvigorate the stagnant Chinese painting tradition with new ideas. In his paintings he achieved a fusion of Western and Chinese art that had a tremendous influence on the development of Chinese art in the 20th century."
Huang Binhong, on the other hand, was the most important painter of the scholarly tradition in the 20th century, personifying the ideal of the modern scholar-artist. Throughout his life, Huang followed the Chinese canon of "reading ten thousand books and traveling ten thousand miles" before achieving his own individual style in old age. A photograph in the museum shows the artist sketching by the West Lake at the age of 90. In his traditional Chinese robes, with his long, flowing white beard, he looks the very picture of a Ming master.
Bo Yun says that he draws inspiration from both their examples. "Of course I have great admiration for masters like Lin Fengmian, or the contemporary artist Zao Wuqi, who have truly integrated Western and Chinese painting techniques and found their own individual style. But the older I get, the more determined I become to imbue my paintings with the spirit of traditional Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasty landscape paintings. This is what will give my paintings soul and depth." Here Bo Yun's approach is very similar to that of Huang Binhong whose inscriptions on his paintings reveal that he "searched for vitality" on the mountains at noon and for "resonance" at dusk; that he wanted to fathom the mystery of nature's changes from rain to shine and from season to season, and to understand the spirit of the landscape.
After their travels during the Cultural Revolution, Bo Yun and other students were branded as "intellectual partisans" and sent to do hard labour in the countryside for four years. Returning to Beijing in 1973, he felt very disillusioned: "All my youthful dreams seemed to be shattered. There seemed to be only two available paths for me to follow. One was towards religion and I could not go that way. The other was towards art. I found hope again when I joined the "Stars" group of artists in 1979. When we were banned from official exhibitions, we hung our paintings on the railings outside the National Museum of Fine Arts in Beijing instead. I felt such a sense of joy. For the first time, I felt I was painting as a true artist. Ever since then, for the past thirty years, I have poured all my energy and soul into my art. It is my refuge and strength and I strive all the time to achieve my dream of becoming a great master."